The Problem of This or That and Nothing in Between

This morning, I went to Presbyterian church with a group of wonderful people who had worked on a local political campaign. One of them whom I really admire – the one I sat next to – is an atheist, his wife an agnostic, and in a twist of fate that was something of a tragic comedy, the sermon was on miracles. That said, most of the sermon was about having faith in spite of the lack of evidence, and that’s something I can get behind. It’s something so very true to the human condition regardless of the religious tradition you’re coming from (or whether you come from one at all). There are times in our lives where, when we have no reason to do anything but despair, we retain hope in spite of the evidence to the contrary. To believe in miracles, to me at least, isn’t really about believing in something that defies what we know from science, so much as it’s about finding hope where there seemingly is none. And that’s just something we have to do in order to survive this life we live.

As the sermon went on, though, the pastor delved into a more rigid, almost literalist approach and started quoting Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century Reformed British pastor. I won’t even try to paraphrase the quote because I’ll just butcher it, but the general sentiment was this: we should either believe in all of the Bible or believe in none of it. I won’t lie – that made me cringe. It even offended me. There are parts of the Bible that I gladly reject, and there are other parts that are important to acknowledge and hold dear. Everybody has his own “canon within a canon,” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I caught myself thinking, “That mentality exemplifies exactly what’s wrong not only with American Christianity but even just America generally. It’s this overly simplistic worldview that trumpets either/or scenarios, and we should always be wary of that kind of thinking.”

To my surprise, though, when the sermon was over and my atheist friend greeted the pastor, he said almost cheekily, “That line about believing all of it or none of it; I liked that line. I can get on board with that line.” Of course, the cheeky part was that my friend doesn’t claim to believe any of it, but seeing the two find agreement was to recognize a real problem that, to me, explains (at least in part) the growing divisiveness across the country: American fundamentalism. To see the two extremes finding agreement about something was like watching a spectrum be curved around to make a circle and see the right-winger and the lefty were actually quite similar. Maybe it’s always been this way, been one-way-or-the-other, but it seems like there used to be a time where there wasn’t a friggin’ label for everything under the sun, and certainly not a second label that stood as the opposite to the first. Now everything seems to come in pairs, both ready for a battle of some kind: Republican or Democrat or right or wrong or pro-life or pro-choice or straight or gay. We’re steeped in construing of the world in a way that oversimplifies the complexity of, well, everything. And there’s something sick and un-empathetic to it. There’s something about dwindling us down to labels that destroys our very humanity.

There are times when I’ve gotten sucked into the labels myself. There are other times, though, where I’ve felt somehow lonely as if watching the Christian and the atheist argue and feeling unsatisfied with and disappointed in them both. Don’t get me wrong. Extremes can be important. They offer challenges we need to hear. But even though I would take Malcolm X over the KKK any day, I’m always going to prefer MLK. And I worry that we’re living in a world that no longer celebrates the radical moderate or sensibility but rather seeks to march us all into lockstep moving only in one direction or the other. I guess my challenge, if not my hope, is that we’d always be suspicious of the either/or stuff.

Some Good Reading

Came across five good articles this morning after sleeping for fifteen hours last night.  I guess getting ready for my upcoming HIV/STI education project has really made me tired.  At any rate, I felt these three articles deserved to be shared beyond Facebook.

1. Chain Envy.  CNN discusses the difficulty of moving away from a chain restaurant that you enjoy.  I’d just like to remind everyone that the Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell is still on my wish list.  It has not yet been sent to Morocco.

2. An article for my mother, the former first grade teacher and any other teachers out there or people who have worked with youth and had to deal with parents.

3. 9/11 Threats to the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro.  Two things are interesting about this.  The first is that, ten years after 9/11, people are still trying to seek vengeance rather than justice or forgiveness for what happened on 9/11.  Vengeance is never the answer.  Second, the people they seek vengeance against are everyday American citizens who had nothing to do with 9/11.  Bizarre.

4. Exposing religious fundamentalism.  Leave it to Al Jazeera to report what American media is keeping hush-hush.  Two of the presidential candidates are Christian dominionists who believe themselves called by God to run for office.  Their theology is essentially theocratic in an attempt to make America a Christian Dominionist nation.  And they’re Zionists – they want to restore Israel to its full state, removing all Muslims from the nation.  It’s unfortunate that two people who believe this stuff can run for President in our society.  I’ll take Reagan over these folks any day.  American media doesn’t report on this, because they fear doing so would make them appear biased as liberal.  But if someone is a dominionist, they’re a dominionist, and people should know where their presidential candidates really stand.

5. Perhaps an even better message than “America’s got fundamentalist issues” is this recent Huffington Puffington post article by my friend Maria (who has been mentioned a lot on my blog lately).  I even helped her edit it.  There’s just no better message than “vengeance is not the answer.”

That’s all for now.  I’m likely to be MIA over the course of the next week or two.  I’ve got a big project happening at my youth center, and then I’m going to the Imilchil wedding festival.  Portugal is within site.

The Sound of God

This afternoon, as I have many times before, I found myself walking by one of the mosques as the call-to-prayer sounded loudly around me from the speakers on the minaret.  I’ve mentioned this experience elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again.  In fact, it’s one of the first things I think you notice about this country if you’re a foreigner unexposed to the Islamic world: that in any given city, five times a day, multiple mosques ring out a Qur’anic chant simultaneously as a reminder that it’s time to pray.  I still habitually wake up to the morning prayer around 4:45a.m., listen to it briefly, then fall back to sleep.

Christianity has much more of a visual focus.  We read the text more often than listening to it.  Our churches are iconic, the story of the crucifixion told in stained-glass or in marble sculptures.  We hold Bible studies that can focus on one parable, if not one verse.  Theologians can devote their lives to the meaning of one Greek or Hebrew phrase that has been widely debated, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.

But early Christian history wasn’t that obsessed with the visual power of a text.  In fact, the only evidence we have of Jesus writing happens in the sand (Jn 8:6), as though it was meant to be blown away and not have any lasting visual impact.  The Gospels and Paul’s letters were probably read out loud in one sitting, and stories may have been shared orally on the street or acted out in the marketplace where ideas were exchanged as easily as produce.

In the religious sphere of the ancient world, listening was at the forefront of the spiritual experience.  Multiple stories from the Torah, while depicting God visually, are more concerned with the sound of God rather than how God actually looks.  And so we “see” God as a burning bush but know the bush as divine by its voice.  Or we hear God calling prophets in the night.  Or speaking the world into being as God calls the day or the night good.  Even the Shema invokes the sound of God as it begins, “Hear, O, Israel.”

Maybe much of this stems from a world which inherited its stories before the advent of the written word.  Stories would pass around orally and aurally about the nature of God, but while Christianity has become more of a visual religion today, I find it interesting how heavily Islam has retained the power of hearing the divine.

The Qur’an itself is in many respect an oral text, meant to be heard and spoken.  There is power behind speaking it, as though it summons the divine presence.  In the same way Christians come to regard Jesus as God incarnate, the Qur’an has a kind of mystical power in which God enters the human sphere through the spoken words of this text.  Hearing the words of the Qur’an has been said to convert many believers who, simply by listening to the sound of the words, were overtaken, and in a kind of ecstasy, convinced of God’s presence in the world.

So, as I’m walking by the mosque, I’m sort of thinking about all of this, about the “sound of God,” so to speak, and my next thought is, “What does God sound like?”

Having grown up in the Bible-belt, whenever anyone mentioned Islam, it wasn’t usually mentioned in a positive context.  After 9/11, one too many times, I heard people say something to the effect of, “All I needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”  Even recently, I’ve heard about anti-Muslim protests occurring in Southern California or congressional hearings against Muslim Americans, and when I do hear about these things, especially when they often came from people who call themselves ‘Christians,’ I just think, “No, that doesn’t sound like God at all.”

God doesn’t sound like bigotry.  Or hate.  Or racism.  There’s an unfortunate history, even in the Bible, of people trying to make God sound like that, but to me, God sounds a whole lot more like the call-to-pray, like the Qur’an, as I walk by on a cloudy afternoon than God will ever sound like a ‘Christian’ who holds a sign or shouts, “God hates Muslims.”

One of my favorite verses from the Bible instructs Elijah to go out to the edge of a mountain and wait for God to pass by as “a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak (I Kg 19:11-13).”

God shows up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.  There are too many people out there, I think, who believe God will show up in a very specific way and to a very select group of people.  This Church, not that Church.  This religion, not that religion.  There’s so much hate and condemnation bound up in that theology.

So I plead with you.  If you encounter someone speaking ill-will toward Muslims, they are speaking ill-will toward me as a Christian, too.  Stop them.  Tell them you have a friend or a family member or you know some guy whose blog you read.  Tell them he lives and works with many amazing Islamic people everyday.  Tell them they’re wrong.  Tell them, “That’s bigotry, and I won’t stand for it.”  Tell them God doesn’t sound like that.  Let’s change our world, please.  I don’t want to live in a world where we continue spreading hate any longer, especially when there’s plenty of love we could spread instead.

Please. Listen to this.

I posted this on Facebook earlier, and I wanted to make sure that anyone who is keeping up with the blog also hears this podcast.  This is from a podcast I regularly listen to called “On Being” about religion and human co-existence.  This week features the recent events happening in the Middle East, and the picture on the main page is actually of a school in Morocco that’s about seven hours northwest of me.  The focus on youth is especially fascinating and interesting and really makes me feel like I’m here doing the right thing.

You can either download the link or stream the podcast:


Stream Podcast with Flash

And just because the guy in the cyber always plays music, here’s a song I’ve recently gotten stuck in my head and am obsessed with by Amr Mostafa.  But fair warning, it’s catchy.  Enjoy.

Tonight, my friend Meetra is coming in, and we’re going to cook chicken noodle soup together, noodles from scratch.  Then, we’re leaving tomorrow to go to Ifrane and are staying the night there with a former volunteer who is also, coincidentally, a Wabash alum.  Then, the rest of the week will be spent in Azrou for our “post-training” training, or “PPST.”  Sunday is Morocco’s “Day of Rage” in Casablanca, Rabat, and elsewhere.  We’ll see if the revolution spreads or not.  Everyone take care.